Why proposals to cut inheritance tax are so popular is one of the mysteries of the age. Even with house-price inflation, it would affect only one in 10 estates by 2020. But it is all a matter of words. Inheritance tax – originally introduced after the French Revolution for reasons you can imagine – has been called, at various times, “estate duty”, “death duty” and “capital transfer tax”. The left favours the more neutral-sounding names; the right prefers anything with “death” in it, such as the current favourite, “death tax”, which makes it sound like grave-robbing. Cleverly, the Tories have also introduced words and phrases such as family home, hard work, savings and nest-egg into the debate.
These subliminal cues are what people will take away from David Cameron’s latest promise to cut inheritance tax. On top of the existing exemption of £325,000 per person (£650,000 for a couple), the Tories would introduce an additional exemption from inheritance tax of £175,000 per person (£350,000 for a couple) for the value
of the main residence when passed to children or grandchildren. This, as Merryn Somerset Webb, the Financial Times columnist and editor of MoneyWeek magazine, says, is “clearly nuts”. It will encourage old people to hang on to large properties instead of downsizing to a flat or small cottage – which many might prefer – thereby releasing more
housing for young families. Moreover, it will increase the sense of injustice when homes have to be sold to fund elderly care, increasing pressure on governments to make unaffordable commitments to cover the full costs.
Even by Tory standards, this is a terrible policy. But George Osborne describes it as supporting “the basic human instinct to provide for your children” and any attempt by Ed Miliband to explain the complex reality will be dismissed as the ramblings of an over-cerebral wonk. One is reminded of Adlai Stevenson who ran twice for US president and lost twice. “I can guarantee you the votes of every thinking American,” shouted an admirer at an election meeting. Stevenson replied: “That’s not enough, madam, we need a majority!”
The Right to Buy – allowing tenants to purchase at a discount council houses and now, under Cameron’s proposals, housing association properties – is another terrible Tory policy. For many years, almost everyone applauded Margaret Thatcher’s original scheme. Only three decades later can we see the full consequences. More than a third of ex-council homes in London are in the hands of private landlords who are, in effect, subsidised by the state through housing credits that help tenants pay the inflated rents – a supreme example of privatisation that leaves both consumers and taxpayers worse off. Private tenants have no rights even to carry on renting beyond a few months, let alone a right to buy. When you hear Tories praising the policy, agree and say you like right-to-buy so much you think it should be extended to the private sector. Then sit back while they try to explain why that wouldn’t be a good idea.
Michael Fallon may not be as stupid as he looks and sounds. I suspect that when the Defence Secretary accused Miliband of being ready to “stab the United Kingdom in the back” by scrapping plans to renew Trident, he knew exactly what he was doing. His analogy with the Labour leader stabbing his brother in the back was widely denounced but it also compelled Miliband to confirm Labour’s support for Trident. The numerous voters who think maintaining nuclear weapons is an unnecessary extravagance are therefore prompted to think of abandoning Labour and voting for the Greens or the SNP, who want to abandon Trident completely, or the Lib Dems, who favour fewer submarines. Meanwhile, the Ukip challenge very slowly fades. That is why I still fear the Tories will achieve a more decisive victory than anybody expects.
The most cheering thing I’ve read in a newspaper recently is the Guardian’s extract from a new book on the board game Monopoly. It was not, as most people think, invented in the 1930s by a salesman called Charles Darrow, but in 1903 by Lizzie Magie, a lefty who wanted to illustrate the wickedness of landlords. I was an eager player of Monopoly at university, frequently topping a league table of fellow enthusiasts. “If you’re a socialist,” a Tory indignantly asked, “how is it that you’re so good at a capitalist game?” Now I know the truth, I feel better about myself.
A different ball game
What I enjoy most in the Wisden cricket annual is the obituaries of the game’s minor figures who were never quite good enough or whose promise, through misfortune, was never fulfilled. This year’s (my review of which will appear in next week’s New Statesman) contains a gem.
Albert Moss was born in Leicestershire but emigrated to New Zealand where in 1889 he became the only bowler in first-class cricket history to take all ten wickets in an innings on debut. He played only three more matches. His English fiancée, Mary, followed him to New Zealand and married him in 1891. As a wedding present, he gave her the “ten-for” ball, mounted and inscribed. A month later, he attacked her with an axe and a razor. Certified insane, he was released from confinement in 1896 on condition that he sail to South America without contacting his wife.
The couple divorced in 1905. But ten years later, having learned that he was working for the Salvation Army in Pretoria, South Africa, Mary sent him the ball. They remarried in 1919 and later returned to England, living in Essex. Moss died there in 1945, although his death went unrecorded in Wisden at the time.
Apart from the cricket context, that story could be the outline for a Hollywood film, complete with swelling violins.